Since winning unified control of the General Assembly in November, Virginia Democrats have rapidly transformed the Old Dominion from a conservative bulwark into a laboratory for gun reform. Lawmakers have passed universal background checks and a “red flag” law, revived a handgun purchasing limit, and repealed the state’s preemption law that had prevented local governments from enacting many of their own reforms.
While these hot-button items have garnered the lion’s share of attention from media outlets and advocacy groups, an under-the-radar proposal could, in the long term, save a substantial number of lives. Last week, the General Assembly passed a bill to establish the Virginia Gun Violence Intervention and Prevention Fund. Over the next two years, the program will administer nearly $3 million in grants to local violence prevention initiatives, and will commission a report on the efficacy of its investment. Democratic Governor Ralph Northam, an early supporter of the fund, is expected to sign the bill later this month.
“[This money] can fund solutions that have known, effective results, that are way less expensive than traditional crime control approaches,” said Greg Jackson, advocacy director at the Community Justice Action Fund, a national nonprofit that promotes local violence prevention work and whose state affiliates advocated for the bill. “The next step is making sure legislators understand what programs are effective.”
With the new fund, Virginia becomes the eighth state in the country to use state money to support community-based prevention efforts, joining California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. Nearly all have seen measurable successes. In California, for example, a robust $30 million dollar pool has contributed to reductions in gun homicides and shootings by up to 50 percent in some cities.
According to the Virginia Department of Public Health, guns claim the lives of roughly 1,000 Virginians annually — slightly more than motor vehicle accidents. The majority of those deaths are suicides, and spread throughout the state. But homicides are clustered disproportionately in poorer, predominantly black neighborhoods in five of the commonwealth’s cities: Norfolk, Richmond, Newport News, Hampton, and Virginia Beach, where the murder rate is in the nation’s top 100.
What the commonwealth's reform package means for background checks, handgun limits, red flag orders, and more.
In an effort to reduce shootings, the Virginia fund has a mandate to support evidence-based approaches to violence reduction, including “street outreach, hospital-based violence intervention, and group violence intervention programs.” All three are time-tested, public health approaches to reducing gun violence that researchers and advocates swear by.
Few programs using these strategies currently exist in Virginia. While a group of Virginia hospitals recently received federal funding to begin hospital-based intervention work, according to Roanoke Vice Mayor Joseph Cobb, there just “[aren’t] a lot of existing local groups doing gun violence reduction work.” Cobb, who led a gun violence task force last year responsible for investigating the scope of the problem in his city, said he hopes the fund will enable cities like Roanoke to create new programs.
Whether or not that happens will depend on a grant proposal process that has yet to be laid out. The bill directs Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services to develop guidelines for administering the money. Because of the size of Virginia’s funding allotment (it falls on the low end of the spectrum of existing programs), the cost of many effective interventions may prove prohibitive. A single contract with the nationally renowned violence prevention program, CURE Violence can cost as much as $500,000 — roughly a sixth of the Virginia fund’s budget.
While activists consider the availability of any public dollars for their work a victory, many acknowledged that the fund may be a temporary solution. Its budget is only guaranteed for the next two years. After that, it’s up to the General Assembly or the governor to renew their investment. And if Democrats lose control of the State Capitol, that may prove unlikely. Such political shifts have sunk a number of effective violence reduction efforts across the country. In Chicago, the state-funded anti-violence program CeaseFire was credited with reducing shootings in some neighborhoods by 42 percent in its first year. The following year, it lost its funding, and shootings increased.
The Virginia program may face similar hurdles. But activists remain optimistic. They say its existence sets an important precedent for future Virginia lawmakers, and that any progress seen over the next two years will justify more sustainable funding measures down the line.
“Ultimately, we need to make sure certain programs that are serving impacted communities continue to have the resources and support necessary to reduce gun violence,” said Lori Haas, the senior director of advocacy at the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which lobbied for the violence prevention fund. Stopping gun violence requires a “multi-layered” approach that includes a combination of legislation and public investment, she said. “The 2022 budget takes a first step in that direction.”